Empathy

 

Photo credit, Aleppo Medical Centre
Photo credit, Aleppo Medical Centre

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Friend, excellent writer, dog lover and fine man Brad Zellar wrote in a recent Facebook post that he was at a local SuperAmerica when a man buying a lottery ticket glanced at a newspaper displaying the photo above, with which many of us are now distressingly familiar, and said,

“Boo hoo, some kid in Iraq had to go to the hospital.”

Brad had a few reflections on this. The following are my selections, statements of Brad’s that stayed with me long after I closed my computer.

To the guy at SuperAmerica I just said, “Syrian. The kid is Syrian,”  and

There was a time not all that long ago when I really believed that very, very few people were genuinely evil. I’m starting to change my tune on that. I think the loneliness of this century is corrosive, and is an incubator for terrifying psychopathy,  and

I just cannot grasp the extent to which so many people seem to be completely bankrupt in the empathy department.

When and why have we become so bankrupt of empathy? My computer definition of empathy is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” How is it possible that a grown man could look at the photo of this child and be absolutely unmoved by the boy’s suffering? And even if he were, privately, unmoved, why in God’s name would he say such a blatantly evil thing out loud?

Evil–Brad’s word and mine. Again, a definition: “profoundly immoral and malevolent.” Yes. Both. If you object to finding this man’s attitude immoral, I would ask you this: What has happened to our collective sense of responsibility for children? You could argue endlessly that if this child were grown, to some degree he participated in his situation. But this kid looks like he’s about five years old. He did NOTHING to warrant a fire-bombed house caving in on him, NOTHING to deserve having his 10-year-old brother die in the same air raid, NOTHING to sit, alone, injured, frightened into a silence he will no doubt hear for the rest of his days.

And if the guy is bereft of compassion because the child is from another place in the world, a place he couldn’t even be bothered to accurately name? Here’s the fact of the matter, the evil of the matter: An adult American man, a man who in spite of whatever circumstances he may be living in here is among the luckiest 5% of the world, made light of a child’s suffering. Publicly.

What might motivate such a response? Brad suggests loneliness, perhaps the unique isolation of our times. At first, I’m not sure I agree. I’ve been plenty lonely at times (Brad, too, I think) and I’m guessing neither of us has come close to expressing it in this way. Is the guy a psychopath, then? Can we excuse his behavior as that of a mentally ill person? I think I’d need to confirm that–walk home with him, see how he behaves with the people in his house who love him and eat with him and sit with him in the evenings. But now maybe I’m getting somewhere, somewhere closer to what Brad is saying. What if the guy comes home to no one? What if he comes home to no one and flips open his computer to hours of porn? Or what if he comes home and there ARE people there but there might as well not be, because the guy is going to drink a six-pack and go to bed without a word to any of them? Or maybe they all hate him even before he pops the first can, for things that are simply true: that he works too hard/too little; that he says things that embarrass them; that he’s inadequate six ways to Sunday; that it’s been so long since anyone has shown him patience or kindness he’s forgotten what they mean; that he’s quick to anger because anger is easy and he is tired.

Aw, crap. Now I’m feeling sorry for the guy.

You know what that’s called?

Empathy.

Feeling that you are alone in this way, that not another soul in the world has your back, that not one person cares about what you are feeling: yes, I suppose this could lead to the empathy vacuum this man has fallen into. And if, instead of feeling angry at the guy (kinda easy) I try to walk just a few steps in his shoes, it seems I approach Brad’s more evolved way of thinking: that perennial, intense loneliness, absolute isolation from the love of another human being is what makes a person, in the end, not care about anybody else.

 

 

 

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